INK BLAST | GREENING THE GHETTO
By Juleyka Lantigua
An environmental spark has been ignited in the South Bronx, a place usually associated with crime, poverty and all types of social ills. The point source for the flame is a statuesque and brilliant Black woman named Majora Carter, who is gaining national and international acclaim for her work in a forgotten corner of the world's most celebrated city.Majora Carter, 41, grew up watching buildings burn because of what she calls "the financial disinvestment" in her Hunts Point neighborhood in The Bronx. After graduating from Wesleyan, she returned home and became involved with local youth and arts groups, which led to community development and public arts projects.
She soon learned that New York City and New York State were planning to build a large waste facility on the area's waterfront to process 40 percent of the City's garbage. She started to make connections between the actions of the city and state governments and the ailing state of her community. "They were absolutely complicit in bringing on not just the economic disinvestment but also what it brought in: the environmental degradation of our community. They put it on poor communities of color, thinking they're not going complain too much."
Sustainable South Bronx (SSBX.org), the organization she helmed for seven years, started with the idea of building a South Bronx Greenway to include bicycle and pedestrian paths, open spaces, and waterfront access. When the restoration process began, the contractors would bring people in the work, even though the community had a 25 percent unemployment rate. So Carter started asking why they were not training locals to do the work.
Soon they were training people to work on reclaiming and rehabilitating the waterfront, wetland restoration, cleaning up contaminated land, and green-roof installation. "We effectively coupled poverty alleviation with environmental remediation so that we could work to make sure that people felt that they had the capacity to change the world and change their own lives at the same time," she explains proudly.
A tenet of the work SSBX does is the idea that environmental rights are civil rights. "It is the core of everything we do. Environmental justice means [certain] communities shouldn't have to have lots of environmental burdens and not enjoy environmental benefits," Carter says. She is unequivocal on this point. "Race and class are the ultimate indicators of where you're going to find the good stuff—like parks and trees—and where you're going to find the bad stuff—like waste facilities and power plants. And of course [there are] health effects associated with it."
In 2005, Carter was honored with a MacArthur "genius award" Fellowship in recognition of her work as "a relentless and charismatic urban strategist" as the foundation described her. But Carter, who has served on the Clinton Global Initiative Poverty Alleviation Panel, has always been very clear that the advocacy she practices is not about receiving charity.
"For us, it's about resource generation; it's about recognizing that there are assets here to produce even more resources. And that people are your ultimate resource…We're not expecting people to do this out of the kindness of their hearts…There will be many opportunities for people to participate in this," Carter says.
After years of focusing on improving the environment in her own backyard, Carter re-aligned the work of SSBX to parallel the growing economic needs of the area as well as the expanding demands of the burgeoning green economy. The aim is to develop an eco-industrial sector, a collection of businesses that use recycled materials as raw materials and has the potential to generate hundreds of local jobs. "I want to help make the South Bronx the center for green manufacturing in New York City," she asserts.
The Bronx is just the beginning. Carter is now transitioning out of her role as the head of SSBX to start her own organization, the Majora Carter Group. "My job will be to go around the country, and internationally, to help support other municipalities, business leaders, universities and community members so they can work together to unlock their green-collar potential." So far, she has received interest from Baltimore, Kansas City, Missouri, Miami, Milwaukee, and Detroit.
Juleyka Lantigua is a writer whose work has appeared in books, magazines and newspapers around the country.
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